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Are food imports from Japan safe?

Consumer Reports News: April 02, 2011 09:09 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency has detected radioactive iodine in some milk from Spokane, Wash., apparently carried from Japan, but says the levels are far too low to pose a threat to humans. But the same might not be true for certain Japanese imports.

The Japanese government has detected potentially dangerous levels of radiation in agricultural products from the area around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, according to the Food and Drug Administration. These products include milk, spinach, kakina (an indigenous leafy green vegetable) and some other vegetables.

The Japanese government stopped shipments of all those foods earlier this week. And the FDA has prohibited the imports from Japan of these same foods.

Food imported from Japan makes up only 4 percent of our imported supply, the FDA says, and the most common imported products from Japan are seafood, snack foods, and processed fruits and vegetables. Radiation enters the food supply after a release by landing on the surface of crops or animal feed, sometimes carried by wind, rainwater, or snow. Over time, radiation can build up within the plant or animal through repeated uptake or ingestion. It can also accumulate in fish and sea vegetables in the same manner as it falls or drains into waterways.

Here are some things to keep in mind about food imports:

• Japan says it stopped shipments of the impacted foods. But there is no international law prohibiting the export of domestically banned foods. So if some products get by a beleaguered Japanese official, or another country isn’t so magnanimous in the future, unsafe food could enter the U.S.

• We have very limited capacity to stop the entry of unsafe food products, as the FDA typically inspects no more than 1 percent of food coming in at the border. However, the FDA says it will inspect all milk and milk products, as well as fruits and vegetables, from the area near the nuclear plant. The agency said it will not allow entry of these products unless they are free from contamination.

• President Obama signed into law a food safety-bill in December 2010 that requires more inspections of food producers at home and abroad, but Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to cut the $200 million set aside in the President’s budget to implement those inspections.

The good news is that we now have country-of-origin labels on produce, so consumers can choose to avoid produce and dairy products from Japan for the time being.

See our advice on how to prepare for nuclear and other emergencies.

FDA talks about radiation safety [Food and Drug Administration]

Joint EPA/FDA statement: Update on ongoing monitoring [Food and Drug Administration]

FAQs: Japan nuclear concerns [World Health Organization]

Sari Krieger

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